It’s a lot to wade through, but the series of experiments described in this paper elegantly demonstrate that university students choose “green” products in order to signal their wealth and status to others—not for any intrinsic environmental benefits. (The news reports will inevitably generalize “university students” to Americans as a whole, but the study only examined students.) Glass half full interpretation: caring for the environment has become a sign of status. Glass half empty interpretation: what we really care about is status, not the earth. Jesus’ words about doing your good works in secret might be worth rereading before you buy that new Prius.
Our findings suggest that marketers of green products are well-advised to clearly link such products to status (e.g., celebrity endorsers, prestigious events), especially when a green product is relatively expensive (e.g., when such products have high development costs and cannot be sold at a loss). As indicated by Study 2, however, a key component of harnessing the power of status motives to benefit social welfare necessitates that the prosocial acts be visible to others, whereby such acts can clearly influence the well-doer’s reputation. For example, nonprofit organizations are well-advised to give their benefactors visible signs, tags, or badges (e.g., the highly visible yellow Livestrong armband signifying cancer donations), so that benefactors can clearly display their self-sacrificing and status-enhancing acts.
A costly signaling framework also suggests that it would be a mistake to link green products to status when such products are relatively cheap because inexpensive products can undermine the signaling of wealth by its owner. Indeed, a key counterintuitive aspect of this framework is that attempts to make green products cheaper, easier to buy, or more time-saving can actually undercut their utility as a signal of environmentalist/altruist dedication. For example, in contrast to standard economic models, a costly signaling framework suggests that electric cars might be seen as more prestigious and more desirable if recharging stations are harder to find and take longer to recharge the batteries, rather than being ubiquitous, fast, and efficient.